The woman was tall.
And Sophie Da Costa had some experience of tall women—she'd once dated an all-conference basketball player. This woman wasn't quite as tall as that, but she was as imposing a presence as anyone Sophie had seen in "Cindy's Curios" for quite some time. Her jacket hung loosely over an athletic frame that suggested easy strength, as did the big, long-fingered hands that peered out from the jacket's cuffs. The woman's black hair was cut in a modified pageboy style, bluntly trimmed at chin level, and her smoothly tanned face had a hard beauty to it. If she wasn't necessarily what Sophie thought of as her "type", she had a type of beauty that was compelling and unforgettable, if a little disturbing.
The tall woman was casting her glance about the store on this dull, sun-baked Wednesday morning, her sharp brown eyes clearly looking for something in particular. That was a bit unusual, as the wild mishmash of product in the place usually forced a customer to try and take the place in before starting to focus on something specific.
"Can I help you?" Sophie called out, and for the first time, the woman seemed to notice her; the young salesgirl found herself shivering slightly as she felt herself being sized up by the woman's gaze as though she were just another item of the store's merchandise.
And there was plenty of merchandise to choose from. While the "Cindy" of Cindy's Curios was actually a dyspeptic middle-aged man named Arnold, the store itself was a treasure trove of odd imported items, focused mainly on the Orient: everything from fine china to cheap toys, women's clothing and men's accessories, pottery, statues, jewelry, chess sets, sarongs… Some of it was cheap touristy crap, of course, but some was quite exquisite: Sophie had just been running her hands lovingly over a new shipment of long, brightly-colored scarves of impossibly soft silk when the tall woman had entered.
"Just looking," came the time-honored response, and the woman's voice, while not unappealing, had the same hardness to it that made her face even more intimidating than it was attractive.
Feeling slightly relieved to be off the hook, Sophie returned her attention to the silk scarves.
Two more months of this, Sophie sighed to herself, but that first day of Graduate School seems SO far off—doubly so while enduring customers as well supplied with attitude as this one seemed to be. Usually, the presence of an attractive woman in the store would have led to some genial conversation, possibly even a bit of mild flirtation—anything to relieve the tedium of her eight-hour day of retail. That was clearly not happening now, and with this one, that was probably a good thing.
She heard the tinkle of the bell over the door, turned to look, and wondered if her math skills, or eyesight, were playing tricks on her: she knew perfectly well that there were now two other women in the shop, but her eyes could only register the newest visitor.
This woman wasn't as tall as the first one, but she had a bearing about her that radiated the authority of someone accustomed to looking down on others. Not in a "stuck-up" way—there was nothing of the snob on the woman's face—but as though it were simply her destiny to command… to dominate.
The woman's Italian business suit was a spotless cream color, and it had clearly been tailored at tremendous expense—it seemed to know every last curve of her body, following it like a road map of excitement. There was nothing mannish about the outfit, though—the collar was open, and in place of a man's necktie she wore about her throat a silk scarf of black shot through with threads of gold.
Her face was narrow and elegant, the nose slightly long and aquiline, with eyes of a blue so vivid as to nearly jump out at an observer. It was a face of beauty so classic that her pale skin might have been marble worked by some great sculptor of antiquity.
From the doorway behind her, sunlight gleamed dazzlingly off a mass of hair the color of beaten gold that was pulled smoothly back to a bun as thick as a grapefruit; such was the woman's appearance of being completely in control that there seemed no hairspray holding the perfect coiffure together: it was as though the woman had but to will it for her hair to stay in place.
The glow of her complexion and the sheen of her hair made her clearly a woman barely thirty, while her bearing and attitude spoke of a worldliness and authority far beyond that age.
Sophie swallowed hard. She was hardly the type of person to jump all over every attractive woman that walked into the store—a summer free of romantic entanglements was actually proving to be quite relaxing—but this woman was something utterly beyond her previous experience.
Self-consciously, Sophie stole a glance at herself in a mirror: the copper skin and dark almond eyes of her Indochinese mother mingled with the sharp features of her Brazilian father, giving her face a cast of intelligence and inquisition that she always feared made her seem too bold, too forward. She accepted that she was pretty, wished she was glamorous, and tugged awkwardly at the hem of her white short-sleeved blouse, hating the stupid plastic store namebadge that was her only adornment. She ran a hand through her long mane of glossy dark hair, letting it fall straight and smooth down her back. She opened her dry mouth, fearful that her voice would be nothing more than a ludicrous croak, but was spared having to stammer out a greeting when the blonde walked straight to the counter and glanced down at the badge pinned to her suddenly prominent chest.
"Sophie." From this woman's lips, it was as though she'd heard her name for the first time, and she could do little but nod in response.
"I understand that your store has received a new shipment from that dear Mr. Chen." The woman's voice was a smooth contralto, that seemed to wrap Sophie's ears in warm velvet.
"Um… actually, his driver called in sick. He said we'd have it tomorrow."
For an instant, Sophie saw something in the woman's face that she couldn't quite recognize: perplexity? Or was it an acknowledgement of some bad news she'd expected?
"Oh, dear, that's too bad. Tomorrow, you say?"
"Well, yes." Sophie tried to decide what possible interest this blond goddess could have in the kind of crap that old Mr. Chen routinely supplied to the store, but hurriedly went on. "Is there something particular you were looking for? Something I could hold for you until you… come back?" She hoped the idiot eagerness she heard in her voice wasn't as blatantly obvious to the woman.
The blonde seemed to consider this for a moment. "No… no, if what I am interested in is truly there, I'm sure I'll find it when I return tomorrow." The look in her eyes was a promise that Sophie found breathtaking for all its triviality—after all, the woman was just looking for some tourist trinket, right? I mean, it has to be that—what the hell else would Chen be bringing? But who cared? The woman would be back tomorrow, giving Sophie an entire day to work up something intelligent to say!
The blonde nodded with a kind of dismissal, as though used to tolerating the eagerness of underlings, and turned to leave. The tall woman seemed to be trying to be subtle about joining her, but it was clear that the two knew each other. In fact, if Sophie was any judge, it was the blonde, not the tall brunette, that was in charge.
As soon as they had left, Sophie had downed a bottle of water almost before she realized it, her mouth and throat had been so dry. She was still trying to decide if there was anything unusual—or unusually promising—in the blond woman's behavior, when the bell rang and the door opened once more.
Another woman on her own, another woman who seemed to be barely looking at the store's merchandise… and another very pretty woman—thirtyish, trim and stylish in an expensive black leather jacket over dark blouse and trousers. And as if a matched set with the store's last pair of customers, this woman was also ignoring the goods and walking straight up to the counter!
Now, Sophie began to wonder if she was still asleep, and having some silly, sexy dream—for the third time today, there was an attractive woman in the shop who seemed more interested in Sophie herself than the goods for sale.
Hair of a deep auburn tumbled casually around the stranger's pretty, carefully—composed face and danced over the shoulders of her black leather jacket, as she rested palms on the counter, and spoke in a low tone.
"Miss Sophie Da Costa?" The voice was as authoritative as the blonde's, but more businesslike, and Sophie nodded in acknowledgement.
"My name is Katherine Forge, Kate for short. I'm a Federal undercover agent, and I need to ask you a few questions." As Sophie nodded in response, the woman slipped a PDA from the pocket of her jacket, and displayed two pictures.
"Have you had occasion to see either of these women today?" Inevitably, the pictures glowing on the tiny screen were of the tall hard—faced woman and her elegant blond compatriot.
How did I know it would have something to do with them? Sophie asked herself. She nodded, then realized the woman wanted more of an answer. "They were both in here a while ago. They came separately, but left together."
"What did they want?"
"Something we didn't have. They were waiting for a shipment that hasn't arrived yet. But who are they?"
Kate Forge smiled and tapped a long red fingernail on the screen, over the picture of the blonde.
"Her name is Erika Cain."
"She's… she's very beautiful," Sophie found herself murmuring stupidly. Even on the small screen of the PDA the woman's face was stunning, though no more so than that of the redhead standing in front of her.
The woman barked a short laugh. "On the outside, maybe—underneath, she's a brilliant, scheming criminal, with a hand in every kind of vice imaginable." She tapped the picture of the tall woman. "And this is her pet 'enforcer', Juno Briggs. A tough piece of work."
"Wait, what—criminal? Vice? What are you talking about?"
Kate Forge sighed, as though impatient to get on with things. "Erika Cain is an extremely rich woman who has maintained her wealth with a series of shady dealings. Sometimes it's as small as avoiding the taxes on alcohol or cigarette shipments, but her reach extends to prostitution, drugs, white slavery—you name it. She's got a finger in more dishonest and disgusting pies than you could imagine."
"But if you say these people are criminals, and you're some kind of government agent, why aren't they in jail?"
The woman smiled thinly. "Erika Cain's a criminal, but a wealthy and influential one—not every crooked CEO goes to jail, you know, and not every criminal mastermind."
She put the PDA back in her pocket. "Actually, Juno Briggs did spend a year in prison after one of their little escapades went badly. Cain got away, though, and we were never able to get Briggs to give up any information about her, even after she'd been left to take the fall. Anyway, all it did was harden Juno even further—Briggs was always a tough cookie, but prison brought out a real streak of cruelty in her. I guess she transferred any resentment about her boss letting her go to prison to every other woman on earth."
Sophie shuddered at the recollection of the beautiful, but hard and cold face, and decided that, yes, Juno Briggs was probably capable of things that Sophie could only have imagined in her darkest dreams.
"Your country needs your help, Ms Da Costa—I need your help." The agent's solemn tone brought Sophie back to reality, and the look on her face was so determined, and the face itself so impossibly beautiful, that Sophie couldn't help but be caught up in the intrigue.
"What is it you need me to do?"
"You're expecting a shipment of these, aren't you?" Kate held up a small porcelain figure of a smiling cat, his paw lifted in greeting. They were a good tourist item, and the store always stocked several varieties, in different materials.
"Oh, right—those. Yes, Mr. Chen usually sends us that stuff by the truckload, all different sizes and shapes, but his driver called in sick today."
"That was my idea," Kate went on briskly, as though this demonstration of the reach of her authority was nothing surprising. She held the cat up for Sophie's closer inspection. "Notice anything unusual about this one?"
Sophie squinted, looking carefully, trying not to appear dumb. "It's… it's shinier than the clay ones usually are."
Kate nodded, dark-red tresses dancing about her shoulders. "It's covered with a special glaze. I had this one made up to resemble the one you're getting in the shipment." Her voice dropped low, and she inclined her head toward Sophie; the scent of the agent's shampoo was intoxicating. "One of the ones Mr. Chen will be delivering—the one that looks like this—is coated in a glaze that is actually made up of the components of a newly-manufactured artificial hallucinogen."
"A drug—an illegal drug—that Ms. Cain can flog to users around the world and make millions, since she'll be the first one out there with it. No testing, no judging of the risks—just millions of would-be 'trippers' transformed into unwary guinea pigs."
"That's terrible." And truly, Sophie did think it was, even though it seemed hard to believe of the blonde she had met earlier. "But what's it got to do with me?" Sophie asked, puzzled.
"I need you to sell Ms. Cain this figure, and hold the real one for me. The one you'll sell her has an ordinary glaze on it, with a transmitter built into it, so that I can follow her."
"Why not just do the switch yourself before the shipment leaves Mr. Chen's?"
The woman shook her head impatiently. "There's no telling just where Erika Cain has eyes and ears. If anything suspicious happens with that shipment before it leaves, she'll know, and I'll have missed my chance."
"Will you be here in the shop with me when I do it?" Sophie could see the handle of a gun just barely hidden away under the agent's jacket, and was prepared to bet that Kate knew how to use the thing pretty well.
"I can't be seen anywhere near the shop when she's around—she could have spotters anywhere. That's why I have to wait till after she's made the purchase to come collect the one with the drug on it. I can then get our scientists onto coming up with a way to counteract this drug, while using the tracer I've planted in my version of the cat to track her down." Her smile widened. "And I'll finally get to put the cuffs on the notorious Erika Cain."
Sophie was shocked at the titillating pictures that sent running through her head, and she flushed as she tried to think of some way of getting out from under this. It was no go, though—any objection she raised was met with a response that brooked no denial.
In the end, she agreed to make the switch, hold the real cat for the beautiful red-haired agent… and what might come after that, God only knew. Well, it would certainly mean a return visit from Kate Forge, and Sophie could see nothing wrong with that.
Thursday looked like being the toughest day Sophie had spent so far in the world of retail, and she wasn't even doing a lick of work: she was just too nervous. Her stomach was roiling with anticipation: could she keep her cool, and fool the beautiful Erika Cain? Did she actually want to try? The woman's bearing was so imperious that it seemed impossible to put anything over on her—it was as if she could have Sophie in the palm of her elegant hand if she wanted.
And just how bad would that be? Oh, cut it out!! Sophie scolded herself. She had to admit that she'd had some downright scandalous fantasies about the gorgeous woman overnight, but deep down she knew that falling under Erika Cain's spell, no matter how tempting, would be disastrous for her in the end.
By mid-morning, she'd seen few customers, only one of whom was still around: a small twentysomething girl, Vietnamese from her appearance, and almost too "goth" to be real, with her spiked hair and black t-shirt and jeans. She barely acknowledged Sophie's greeting with a grunt, and the salesgirl shrugged and went back to trying to calm her nerves enough to work. She had already placed the cat that Kate had given her on the display, and stashed the other one behind the counter to give to the agent; she'd handled it with gloves, queasy at the prospect of getting any of the drug on her hands, no matter how well-baked the glaze seemed to be.
It was perhaps five minutes after the Vietnamese girl had entered the store that Sophie looked through the dusty front window to see a large dark sedan pull up in front. She offered a silent prayer that somehow the whole affair would be called off, but knew as sure as the sun would rise that it would be Erika Cain and Juno Briggs who got out of the car, and seconds later was proved absolutely right.
Moment of truth, she thought to herself. Time to put myself smack dab in the middle of a dangerous conflict between two beautiful, deadly women. Sophie, are you out of your mind????
Erika Cain stepped through the door, sending her piercing blue eyes around the room, and for just an instant, as they lit on Sophie's face, there was an expression in them that confirmed everything that Kate Forge had told her: under the woman's breathtaking beauty was a mind capable of the callous depravity it would take to launch the scheme that Kate had outlined. And as the tall figure of Juno Briggs came in behind her, Sophie suddenly had a terribly cold feeling.
She was surprised to see the elegant blonde spare only a glance for the étagère holding the happy cats, and instead walk over to the rack of the latest women's skirts and sarongs. Glancing over them casually, Erika Cain plucked a few from the rack, and came over to the counter.
"My dear," and Sophie's throat tightened at the familiar form of address, "have you a place where I might try these on?"
Sophie stood stock-still, baffled, for a moment—if there were anything that seemed less likely than this chic woman wearing these particular garments, she was hard pressed to imagine what it might be. But for all that Kate had told her about how dangerous Erika Cain could be, there was still that little voice in her head telling her that the customer is always right.
"Why… why of course," Sophie stammered. "Right this way." She stepped around the counter and indicated that the blonde should follow her back to where the small dressing cubicles were located. Remnants of the store's long-ago origins as a women's clothing store, the dressing areas were comfortably large, with thick, burgundy-colored plush curtains to allow customers their privacy. As Erika Cain settled herself in, Sophie nervously returned to the counter, and was surprised to see Juno Briggs in quiet conversation with the young Vietnamese girl. Fearful lest they observe her watching them too closely, she turned her face to the register, trying to find something to keep herself busy, when she heard Erika Cain call her name.
"Sophie," came the voice from behind the curtain, and Sophie thought she might melt right then and there, hearing her name spoken in that seductive purr.
"Y...yes?" her voice sounded thin and funny in her ears.
"Would you be a dear and come help me with something?"
"Of course!" Sophie took a step toward the dressing room, and suddenly felt her stomach turning over again—was she going to be asked to help the woman change? Undress? Wild thoughts of the curves so tantalizingly hidden by the expensive suit filled her head and she hastened back.
Sophie parted the curtain, and took a step into the cubicle. Surprisingly, Erika Cain wasn't changing clothes, but merely sitting on the small chair, the clothes from the rack in a casual heap on the floor next to her.
"W… what?" Sophie found herself asking dumbly.
"Sophie, darling, I have a question to ask you." The blonde got up from the chair with a movement that was all lithe grace and panther-like power. She took a step toward Sophie who stood rooted to the spot as though paralyzed. "After I was in here yesterday, did you have any… unusual… visitors?"
"Unusual?" Sophie felt like a not-too-bright parrot, as something ominous started to creep up the back of her spine.
"Mmm," the blond nodded. "A pretty woman, long dark-red hair, dressed in black leather, who might have asked you to do something out of the ordinary to help her."
Blood pounded in Sophie's head. God, what have I got myself into? Two stunning women were, in effect, each asking her to lie to the other, and she could hardly imagine what the right answer was. No, that wasn't true, she did know the right answer: this one's the criminal—the drug dealer! Even if she was still having trouble believing it, deep down, she knew.
She tried what she hoped looked like a casual shrug. "No, nothing like that."
Erika Cain's face clouded slightly in what looked like disappointment. She pursed her lips and sighed, "Tsk, tsk. Such a terrible little fibber."
It was as far as Sophie got. In the next instant, an enormous hand had pressed strong fingers across her lips, and her arms were pinioned to her sides by an arm that wrapped around her waist, lifting her off her feet! She was yanked back and up against the powerful form of Juno Briggs; she dangled helplessly in the woman's grasp, wriggling uselessly against the stronger woman's body, her eyes goggling over the gagging hand, as Erika Cain approached, her blue eyes narrow with disapproval, her mouth twisted in a thin smile that boded the captive girl no good whatsoever.